This one is a question I can't seem to find an answer for. I do have a friend, a professional editor, who told me she saw no problem with me switching from "it" to "he" or "she" when referring to an animal in the situation I'm about to lay out, but I'd like to know if others feel the same way.

Here's my dilemma. I am writing a novel in which the main character has a cat. Its name is immediately known and I refer to it as "he" throughout the book. However, later in the book, my main character sees a horse in a pasture he decides he wants. I refer to it as "it" because he doesn't know the gender of the horse and there is no reference to its gender or name until later. Fast forward, and my main character has learned the horse is male and I reveal its name. Later, he buys the horse and often the horse's name is referenced in the book.

My question is this: Is it okay to refer to a particular animal as "it" and later switch to "he" or "she" once the gender is known, especially when the name is used at that point? Referring to an animal, especially one that is a pet, as "it" once the name is revealed feels very unnatural to me. I personally feel that it's okay to switch the pronouns once there is more known about the animal.

Here's a sample of what I'm talking about:

(My character sees the horse for the first time)

The blue roan stood out against the backdrop of snow like a moving painting, its mane and tail long and flowing like heavy strokes from a paintbrush.

Later, the horse's name is known (Braveheart):

Now, with the warmer weather, Braveheart spent most of his time in the pasture.

Your input is much appreciated! Thank you!

closed as primarily opinion-based by tchrist, Ellie Kesselman, Chenmunka, Hellion, Tushar Raj May 6 '15 at 15:18

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    Why do you suspect this wouldn't be OK? – user867 May 5 '15 at 1:17
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    There is no grammatical reason why not. As for creative and artistic reasons, they are up to you (and creative and artistic trumps grammar every time). – DJClayworth May 5 '15 at 1:28
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    You can do anything - no, really, ANYTHING - you like in a story you write. – Drew May 5 '15 at 1:39
  • Generally (or at least among the horse people I know), knowing the animal's name wouldn't make a difference, just knowing the sex would (unless the speaker is really abstracting/depersonalizing the animal). Many names aren't gender-specific: for instance, my own mare is named 'Nova', which would work for either sex. – jamesqf May 5 '15 at 4:55
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    I wouldn't go from gender-specific (the cat is a he) to gender-neutral (the cat is an it) later in the same story, but going from gender-unknown (the horse is an it) to gender-known (the horse is a he) seems perfectly reasonable—and in keeping with the character's degree of knowledge, as you point out in your question. By the way, I don't consider your question to be merely "opinion-based," because it asks about matching pronouns to one's state of knowledge of a thing, which I take to be a matter of logical thinking. – Sven Yargs May 5 '15 at 7:13

It is absolutely correct to make the change. At first, the narrator can't possibly refer to the sex of the animal while he or she still doesn't know it.

Later, once the sex and name were known, you could (conceivably) have the narrator refer to the animal in the neutral gender.

It would now connote a very specific meaning: the animal is still for some reason just an object to the narrator, not a creature about whom the narrator cares at all. But this could scarcely happen in a narrative where the name of the horse became known. It would create an absurd contradiction in the tone: the horse is named Braveheart (we now know him (it) but somehow still don't care about him/it. We don't love, pity, hate, feel ambivalent, wonder about him.) It's hard to imagine a story where the writer would want to convey these contradictory ideas.

  • Thank you for your answer. I see what you're saying. Once the name of the horse is known, there is an emotional connection. It's more than "just a horse." And, as I mentioned previously, it feels unnatural, after revealing the name and referring to the horse by name, to use "it" as a pronoun at that point. I just don't recall this coming up in any book I've read, so it's likely an uncommon issue. Not to mention, the cat in the story is referred to as "he" and "him" from the very beginning, so to not switch to those pronouns with the horse lacks continuity. Leave it to me to have this issue! =) – Trish E. Harmon May 5 '15 at 2:29

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